Archive for July, 2012

To Niew Zilland

Posted in Books, Travelling, Writing on July 31, 2012 by ladyredjess

A few weeks back I made my first visit to Brisbane’s international airport.  Although I was only going across the ditch to New Zealand, I was pretty darn excited because, I realised, it was the first time I’d been out of the country in three years.  Such is the reality of being a povo writer: travel is limited.

This was my fourth visit to NZ, the latest being 10 years ago when H and I backpacked from Auckland to Christchurch, struggling en route up Mt Tongariro (or rather, I struggled, being very unfit at that stage) with a swag of people, including a couple dressed in exactly the same outfit of pale trousers, shirt and hat.  We had waited for the bus to the mountain in a café with yellow tabletops decorated with ski boots with a candles stuck in them, while a song by Mel C played on the radio.  Later, I met my first misogynist in a hostel in Westport (which was otherwise very nice), bought a fabulous handbag woven from packing tape, got attacked by a tui and whacked it with said handbag, and helped H push grandma’s car through a street in Akaroa because he couldn’t work out how to get it into reverse.

We are half Kiwi, as Mum hails from Christchurch, so each visit finishes in that city with a stay with Gran.  This time I flew into Wellington for the annual conference of the Association of the Study of Australian Literature, the first time it had been held overseas.  However, to my chagrin, the plane was delayed for four hours, so I finished reading my novel and had to buy another, and then I missed the opening talk by Martin Edmond.

Martin is a writer of non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, biographies and blogs.  I used to read his blog about being a taxi driver while I sat on the desk at UCL Library, in between checking out books to students.  My father had been a taxi driver of an old black Woolsley in Sydney before he met my mother and took her back to the farm (with the car which, unregistered, loaded with dust and with faulty seatbelts, was used to drive sedately through paddocks or to visit our aunts and uncles on the property), and I discerned in both him and Martin the same rapport with people of all walks of life.  My father tried to teach me this affinity, but sadly I picked up his latent snobbery instead.

The next day at the conference (at which I finally arrived after walking into another conference altogether, full of lawyers) I introduced myself to Martin, and found that he recognised me from my blog, and there came that peculiar but enchanting moment of meeting someone who knows a substantial part of your history before you’ve barely opened your mouth.  He was a lovely person, and later emailed me his talk, which detailed an intricate network of artistic, literary and mercantile relationships spanning the Tasman.

The conference itself was wonderful, especially for someone who isn’t affiliated with an institution but still craves academic stimulation.  I met fellow scholars on Rosa Praed, caught up with someone I hadn’t seen since my Honours year at Wollongong, gave a paper on Georgiana Molloy and her children’s graves, learnt about the representations of islands and homesteads in Australian literature, listened to a sophisticated ecocritical reading of That Deadman Dance and Carpentaria by Jane Gleeson-White (who has also blogged on the conference extensively herehere and here) and, at the dinner, sat next to Richard Hill, of the Treaty of Waitangi Research Unit, and found what I could hear very interesting, but sadly this wasn’t much as he had a beard and a low voice.

At the same time, the conference was a little unsettling, as I was a writer of fiction circulating among people whose job it was to pull fictional texts apart.  Surely, I thought more than once, writers don’t put all this stuff into their work?  And then I mused to my father later, on the phone, why on earth people dissected texts and artworks like this, and wondered if literary critics could see something in texts that writers themselves can’t see – a part of their subconscious, perhaps, and the way they interact with culture.  As always, I remain torn by the critical and the creative, and wish there was some way of balancing them.

Wellington, despite its drizzle, was a pretty city, and I wish I’d had longer to explore its bars and cafes (in one of which, French and red, I sat to read and collect myself before moving on to the conference dinner).  I had looked at Katherine Mansfield’s house on the previous trip with H, but I would have liked to have seen some gardens, especially after hearing Sarah Jane Barnett’s wonderful poem on the precariousness of gardening on Wellington’s steep slopes. On the other hand, the brief stay was probably just as well, as the boutiques were gorgeous and I am currently destitute.  I did walk into one shoe shop, and successfully walked out without extracting my credit card, which was no mean feat.

After the conference I caught the ferry to Picton.  The sun came out and the water was dazzling.

Picton, too, sparkled despite the biting breeze, and I had time to find a coffee and watch the locals sitting outside the café in the morning light, before catching the train to Christchurch.  Again, the scenery was spectacular, the train very civilised (unlike the rattler H and I had caught from Greymouth to Christchurch a decade before) and I realised I’d forgotten how pretty and dramatic New Zealand is.

Christchurch, however, was a sad heap of rubble.  Buildings were still being torn down because they were unsafe.  My aunt took us to lunch in the suburbs, which were being utilised by businesses that had lost their buildings in the centre, and said how people were so stressed by the earthquakes and aftershocks that their immunity was low and they kept getting sick.  I felt one tremor while I was there, the night before I flew out.  I had just fallen asleep, and thought my Shake Awake, my vibrating alarm clock (necessary for those who can’t hear alarms) had gone off, but I found it was 11.30pm.  In a painful conversation with the taxi driver the next morning (he had an accent and I hadn’t had enough sleep and it was 5am and he was chirpy as) I discovered it was a quake of 4.5 that had made my bed shake like it was possessed by poltergeist.

My grandmother is 90 in October.  I always remember her birthday because it was the same as Sue Ellen, my Cabbage Patch Kid’s, given to me for Christmas when I was 7 (and which my sister ruined almost instantly by tearing the doll’s nappy).  Grandma likes to fuss, and I detest being fussed over and prefer very much to do my own thing, so after the first day, in which I was limp with exhaustion after so much listening at the conference, I began to get a little frustrated, and tried to subsume said frustration in reading.  I resisted eating in the dining hall with the other biddies (recoiling at the thought of all those deaf people, myself included, trying to have a conversation), but was made to go to morning tea.  I consequently finished four novels, and managed not to get into an argument with Grandma about the Maori’s water rights.

It was delightful to follow the sunrise home from Christchurch on the plane, and I was thoroughly pleased to get back to the warmer climes of Bris Vegas, albeit burdened with several bottles of Marlborough sav blanc, which is pretty much the only wine I drink.  I’m now gearing up for my book publicity.  My website (C/- H), is nearly ready to go and I have half an outfit worked out for my launch.  I am, however, lacking shoes to match.  A new (perfectly justified, naturally) purchase may be in order.

On Endings

Posted in Books, Writing on July 17, 2012 by ladyredjess

Entitlement is done.  My advance copy arrived in the post yesterday morning and it is, quite simply, gorgeous.  The colours are warm, inviting and well-blended, and the character in the foreground, contemplating the homestead, encapsulates Cate and her dilemma perfectly.  My editor, Rachel Scully, and the designer, John Canty, will always have my heartfelt thanks and gratitude for pulling this together so beautifully.

The novel will be released on 22nd August, both in hardcopy and as an e-book, and the launch will be at Avid Reader on 31st August.  I’m trying to decide which frock to wear, but at the moment my cobalt blue Sacha Drake wrap dress is winning out.  Possibly with my red stiletto Karen Millen boots from London.  Or with my pale pink Alannah Hill pumps.  Some consultation with my sister will be required, methinks.

So I am exhilarated, but it has also been quite saddening.  Once we had finished the copy edit and I couldn’t touch the work any longer, I plunged into depression.  The world lost its lustre and it was difficult to feel connected to anything.  One the one hand, there are straightforward reasons for this: for the last three years, nearly every day has been geared towards the production of this book.  I’ve worked part-time in a flexible, if sometimes unstimulating, job, so I have time to write and I’m not drained by stress.  I’ve run in the mornings to wear myself out and sit down and write for the rest of the day; or conversely, swam in the afternoon to unwind after a day of writing.  I haven’t made a habit of drinking, so I can get up and write the next day without being blurred by a hangover (which, incidentally, makes me a delightfully cheap drunk).  Most of my annual leave has been taken up with writing so I’ve barely had a break, and if I did get a break, most of it was stained by feeling guilty for not writing.  The novel and its characters travelled with me for all this time, becoming especially real in the last few months.  Is it any wonder, then, when I contemplated divorce from the world I had created and nurtured, that I dissolved into tears?

Yet no one seemed able to understand my abiding sense of loss, and nor could I completely comprehend it myself.  After all, there are songs, stories and novels aplenty about losing lovers, homelands and friends, but where are the narratives about the loss of a creative life?

I’ve found myself turning, as I so often do, to Margaret Atwood’s wonderful book, Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing (Anchor Books, 2003).  In this, Atwood observes that ‘the mere act of writing splits the self into two’ (p. 32), and that there are two selves that make up a writer:

‘the person who exists when no writing is going forward – the one who walks the dog, eats bran for regularity, takes the car in to be washed, and so forth – and that other, more shadowy and altogether more equivocal personage who shares the same body, and who, when no one is looking, takes it over and uses it to commit the actual writing’ (p. 34).

There were times, particularly in the last few days of the copy edit, when my body truly was nothing but this form that ate, slept and pushed a pen across a page so that the story could emerge and live.  It wasn’t me anymore; I was the story itself.

Later in her text Atwood expounds on the role of this ‘shadowy personage’, describing how all writing is motivated ‘by the desire to make the risky trip to the Underworld, and to bring something or someone back from the dead’ (p. 156).  What she means is that writers write to make something alive – they talk to ghosts, write down their stories, and bring them to life.  Of course, the Underworld can be interpreted as the unconscious, and the self that goes about its daily living does so in order that this unconscious might be able to take a tangible shape.

So Entitlement is not merely three years of work in a beautifully packaged form, it is three years of conversations with an inner self; of carrying forth a childhood, a love for the land on which I was raised and for my brother and family; of finding words to shape a loss so that others can feel it too; of several startling moments when a phrase appears in your head, so suited to the scene at hand, that you are astonished; of daydreams that are wished for and projected into the writing; and of the alchemising of research into something accessible and believable.  When that process is interrupted, and there is no longer a daily conversation with the elements of your psyche that contribute to the work, it seems obvious that you will feel depressed.  And as so few make such a journey or go through this process, it’s difficult to communicate it.  Most people get on with living, rather than using that living to make stories, and to engage with other worlds.  And this, quite frankly, is alienating.

However, I went to the annual ASAL conference in New Zealand last week and was jolted into a new environment (albeit another unsettling, but still stimulating one, where academics pull apart the works you have put together – more of this in another post), and stayed with my gran in Christchurch, and read 6 novels, and generally recovered.  I feel altogether more normal now, although there is still a vague and persistent sense of absence.  I have a mountain of non-fiction writing awaiting me (on which I am, of course, procrastinating) and there is the difficult decision to make not only about shoes, but also on whether to wear a silver belt or a pink flower with a ribbon, with my launch frock.  Clearly, we’re a long way from the underworld.